Expectation. Birth. Manger. Shepherds. Angels. Witness. Many such details constitute the common ingredients in any veteran preacher’s Christmas Eve message.
Indeed, if you have been involved in the vocation of preaching for a while, you may be able to virtually rattle off the story of the Lord’s Nativity from rote memorization! Herein lies the conundrum. What other angles on the Nativity can be articulated other than the usual annual message?
Perhaps, one way to go about reading the Nativity with new eyes is by describing differently the relationship between Luke 2, the larger gospel account, and the Old Testament. A variety of intertextual or thematic cross-reference opportunities are available to the interpreter starting with the Nativity scene in Luke 2.
Worth noting from Luke 2 are the thematic and textual echoes from the Old Testament, especially among the writings of the prophets, as well as details that foreshadow moments in the larger storyline of the Gospel of Luke. The story of Jesus’ birth can be an avenue for looking backward and forward across the two storied testaments and within the Gospel of Luke. Readers need only to pay attention to some of the details as breadcrumbs leading back to the stories of old.
Connections between Old Testament and Gospel of Luke
One of the first echoes from the Old Testament worth noting is Luke’s reference “to the city of David called Bethlehem” (Luke 2:4). Bethlehem is significant in that it is designated the birthplace of David (1 Samuel 16:1-13). Although the origin of the city is undetermined, it initially appears in the biblical account under the name of Ephrath with parenthetical references to Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19; 48:7). It is in the Book of Judges where one first reads of Bethlehem as a site of Israelite inhabitants (Judge 17:7, 19-20).
The Lucan reference to Bethlehem connects Jesus’ birth to the five books of Moses (Pentateuch), and also to the prophetic writings. Specifically, Luke 2:4 may allude to the prophetic writing of Micah where it says, “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrath, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). The prophetic writing of Micah is a common source informing the Gospel of Luke’s narrative. Other echoes to passages from Micah’s prophetic writing include: Luke 1:33 and Micah 4:7, Luke 1:55 and Micah 7:20, Luke 1:74 and Micah 4:10, Luke 2:11 and Micah 5:1, and Luke 2:14 and Micah 5:4 (to name a few).
The relative concentration of potential Micah references in the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke is not incidental. The prophetic connection and role of Jesus as the Messiah reverberates throughout the Gospel of Luke in a way unmatched by the other gospels. From references to Jesus characterizing his own mission by appeals to prophetic texts (Luke 4:17) as well as prophetic personages (Luke 4:27, 20:6) to Jesus’ general rehearsals of prophetic experiences of censure, maltreatment, and rejection (Luke 4:24; 13:33) — prophetic echoes from the Old Testament are strong.
A concentration of Davidic references also prevails in Luke’s gospel. As such, the Bethlehem reference has larger significance than perhaps one realizes. Bethlehem is not only the birth city of Jesus and home of Joseph, but its two references in Luke (2:4, 15) are only one of the multiple ways the gospel asserts Jesus’ connection and continuation of the Davidic lineage and mission (Luke 1:27, 32, 69; 3:31; 18:38-39).
The Davidic connection is asserted elsewhere in this passage — namely, through the reference to the shepherds in the field in Luke 2:8. It echoes back to the iconic shepherd-king of Israel, David, and his place of anointing (1 Samuel 16:11, 19; 17:15, 28, 34; Psalm 78:70-72). The language of the shepherds finding “a sign” in Luke 2:12 in the form of a child harkens back to the account of Saul’s anointing by Samuel. This anointing moment designates Saul as the divinely ordained savior of God’s people, whose task is ultimately carried out by David. In the anointing ritual, Samuel says, “The LORD has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the LORD and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around. Now this shall be the sign to you that the LORD has anointed you ruler over his heritage…” (1 Samuel 10:1).
One last point worth noting briefly is how the presence of shepherds and angels shift the meeting place of humans and the divine from the Temple, in Luke 1, to the fields in Luke 2. The gospel begins with a theophany (or angelophany, more technically) in which Zechariah encounters the divine message in the place established to house the presence of God, the Temple (Luke 1:8-23). At the birth of Jesus, however, the place of meeting shifts to the common and everyday space of devoted people like shepherds in the field. Indeed, Luke’s Jesus uses the story of Abiathar giving the bread of presence to David (1 Samuel 21:1-6; see also Exodus 25:30; Leviticus 24:5-9) to disrupt the prevailing application of Sabbath law, as represented by the Gospel of Luke (see also Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28). In this way, perhaps, the significance of space and God’s presence as well as interaction among humanity continues to shift in the gospel.
Ultimately, the Nativity scene in Luke exhibits a rich texture of reinterpretations from the prophetic tradition of Israel. Thus, the sense of expectation that lingers in the air of Advent and Christmas Eve is not simply an invention of secular holiday spirit. Rather, it is a key aspect of the Nativity moment itself.
Captured in Luke 2 are scriptural expectations about who Christ is and what is to come in the years following Jesus’ birth. Here, the writer is involved in a process of interpretative retrieval and recasting. He retrieves the prophetic and Davidic expectation present in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) and recasts it in the light of his account of Jesus’ birth narrative.
Looking back to Old Testament echoes is the first step in understanding the birth of Jesus. The next interpretative move requires an additional step backward to a universal creation story — God creating woman, man, and the world out of God’s unending love toward us. Jesus’ birth is a gesture of God not abandoning creation, but ever working to connect humanity across time to each other and to God’s self (see Luke’s genealogy and particularly its conclusion, 3:23-38).
Thus, the focus of Luke 2 does not reside in the narrative details modern Christians have come to love such as the manger, angels, and shepherds. Rather, the purpose of Luke’s interpretative enterprise manifests in the impression and understanding of the identity and work of Jesus Christ and God’s love for the world imparted to the hearers and readers of the gospel record. That moment is worth communicating and expecting.
Plans: I am very good at making them.
I plan my vacations. I plan my career trajectory. I even make plans for how my children will live their lives. I often find myself annoyed with those who do not follow the script of my meticulous and brilliant plans, even when the non-compliant one is God.
Israel had plans. Its monarchic structure provided a mechanism for smooth transferal of power from one king to the next. It was a brilliant plan. The leaders consulted prophets to select the right family for this dynastic succession. They built a palace that demonstrated the king’s authority and a temple to symbolize God’s cooperation with their plan. What could go wrong?
As the saying goes, life is what happens when we are making other plans. Human kings remained human, even while they were divinely appointed. David committed adultery, Solomon worshipped other gods, and Rehoboam was a tyrant; and these were just the first three kings of this carefully planned dynastic rule. The nation split, with northerners trying to find a different family who would make the plan work.
Kings were not only supposed to rule the land with justice, but the divine rewards for a pious king would include prosperity to the nation, peace in the land, and a flourishing of native ecology. At the time that Isaiah lived, however, this idyllic rule remained far from the people’s experience. Assyria, which had a huge military machine, came out of Mesopotamia, conquering people on their way to exploit Mediterranean trade and eventually subdue Egypt. Their plans clashed with those of Israel and Judah.
The Assyrian reliefs that lined the walls of their monarchs’ palaces vividly recreate the brutal nature of siege warfare. The panels depicting the siege of Lachish, a Judean city, include the maiming of Judean bodies, and piles of severed heads gathered up by the soldiers. These same Assyrians sacked the city of Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, and exiled the elites that they captured.
The oracles in Isaiah 1-39 include material reflecting this turbulent time period. Isaiah served within the Judean royal system in Jerusalem, providing prophetic services to four successive Judean kings during a significantly threatening period of Judah’s history. During his lifetime, the Assyrians destroyed Samaria and Lachish, and besieged Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem avoided being sacked, although different records credited different factors for this outcome. Within Israel’s cultural memory, however, Isaiah became the hero of this miraculous twist of fate.
It might be surprising for those who only hear material from Isaiah through the lectionary to find out that most of the material in chapters 1-39 consists of oracles of condemnation against Judah and its kings for their sinful ways. Like many other pre-exilic prophets, Isaiah depicts invasion as God’s punishment for sin. In Isaiah 5, for example, which depicts Judah as Yahweh’s nurtured vineyard, God lays waste to the vineyard/nation (verse 6) because of their wayward nature. In Isaiah 6, God promises to wipe out the nation completely.
Just like other prophetic texts, however, the collection in Isaiah 1-39 also contains a few images of a blissful future. Isaiah 7:14-25 heralds the coming of a future Davidic king whose reign will be characterized by the political and ecological flourishing that typifies a righteous king. Isaiah 11 contains the poem outlining the peaceable kingdom of an idyllic future king.
Sandwiched in the middle of these two passages, Isaiah 9 also depicts the reign of a king who will usher in a time of peace the prosperity. The light that shines in this poem burns brighter in the context of the dark historic events experienced by the nation at this time. The poem, addressed to those surrounded by the military might of the Assyrians, invites the text’s audience to imagine a glorious future. Verses 3-5 utilize images associated with the aftermath of war, such as plunder and the burning of blood-soaked garments, to replace the reality of the Assyrian invasion with a Judean victory. We may experience defeat today, the poem infers, but some day, we shall win.
The poem culminates in an exaltation of a future perfect king in Isaiah 9:6-7. The poem lists epithets for this king that address his roles as guarantor of justice (Wonderful Counselor), pious ruler (Mighty God, which could also be translated, Divine Might), protector of the people (Everlasting Father), and the one who subdues all external threats (Prince of Peace). Justice characterizes the reign of this idyllic representative of the Davidic dynasty.
In short, Isaiah 9 contains Israel’s plans for its future, and it looks like a brilliant plan. They will stay faithful to the choice of dynasty God has chosen for them, so that God will eventually reward this loyalty with the paragon of righteous rule.
I have noticed, however, that as annoyed with God as I get when my plans are ignored, I end up in a place I could not even imagine. As great were the hopes that I had for my children, the careers that I planned for them, how they would dazzle the world with their talents, I have to admit that I could never have imagined how amazed I am at who they have become. And it is not because they followed my plan, but because they have become really interesting, caring, and moral adults that I love and admire. God’s plans beat mine.
On Christmas Eve the people of God face the same reality. Yes, we can imagine a glorious future, but how we define glory is often not radical enough. While the Israelites expected utopia within a monarchic structure, God imagines a future that deconstructs a system that cannot bring true resolution to human problems. Human kings will always sin; people will always fail; nature will wither. Instead, the radical, self-giving root of real justice will be made imaginable with the birth of a poor child outside of the urban hub of Jerusalem. God’s plans remain better.
Psalm 96 is psalm of pure exultation, so very appropriate for Christmas Eve.
We are enjoined, indeed the whole earth is enjoined, to sing a new song to the Lord. The waiting is over … sing a new song. And if this very old song is not sung as a new song on this occasion, we miss the spirit that is at the heart of the psalm.
So, we might well ask, how shall we sing a new song? In many ways Psalm 96 provides for us a model of how to praise. We sense this in the expansive use of imperative verbs throughout the psalm. And we are helped in understanding this model by James Mays who, in his book on the theology of psalms, 1invites us to see the fundamental purpose of praise in the psalter as threefold:
We see these three purposes clearly at work in Psalm 96
Praise is doxological
Doxology is present whenever the Lord is glorified. Psalm 96 begins with doxology, and praise is present everywhere. Throughout the psalm the LORD is the singular object of praise. The first three verses direct us to sing to the Lord… bless the name of the Lord… declare the glory of the Lord. Indeed three times in this short psalm (verses 3, 7, and 8), we are told to declare God’s glory (kebod in Hebrew, doxa in Greek). The name of the LORD is repeated 11 times. And then in verse 9 we are told to “worship” the Lord, the central work of doxology.
Praise is confessional
As with all psalms of praise, Psalm 96 confesses who God is and what God has done. We pray the psalms not only for praise but also that we might better know God.
The content of any psalm’s confession is often found in those verses or clauses that begin with the conjunction “for” or “because.” These verses offer up the reasons we are called upon to render praise. We might call these “key” clauses because in Hebrew this conjunction is ki.
Verses 4 and 5 both begin with “for … ki”. Verse 4 tells us that we worship the Lord because the Lord is great. But the single world “great” is not sufficient. The reason is expanded. The Lord is greater than other gods. In fact, those gods are not gods at all. Those gods are idols. The Lord made the heavens. There is almost always a narrative aspect to confession. Confession often recalls other parts of the biblical story or, in this case, the prophets or other psalms.
Confession is also present in verse 10 in what we are invited to say among the nations.
“The world is firmly established,” tying the creation of the earth to the creation of the heavens in verse 5. Creation is here and elsewhere not only a statement about the cosmic past, it is a promise for the present and the future… “it shall never be moved!” Confession moves in the direction of promise. And part of the promise is, surprisingly, that judgment is not a threat, as we so often hear it, but rather, good news. This reality of the psalms came as a great surprise to C.S. Lewis in his “Reflection on the Psalms.”2 The final verse 13 echoes the promise of judgment. Judgment rises from equity, fairness, righteousness, truth, and justice. This positive judgment is what we experience in the coming of the Lord — in the psalms, at Easter, and incarnationally at Christmas.
Praise is evangelical
Psalmic praise serves as proclamation of and witness to the good news of God.
When we name the tradition and the “Good News” (the Gospel or evangel) into our lives and into the lives of those around us, our praise is evangelical.
Look carefully again at the grammar of the verbs in Psalm 96. The numerous imperatives are addressed to the faithful, instructing them to proclaim the reality of God to others. And who are these faithful who are instructed to give praise? In verse 1 and again in verse 9, they are “all the earth.” We rightly assume that this refers to all the people of the earth as it does in verse 7, “O families of the earth.” The very use of the word “families” rather than “nations” lends a positive assessment to all the peoples of the earth. Notably the very ones who are called to praise are also, as the “nations” and “peoples,” the recipients of the words (see verses 3, 5, 10).
But most wonderfully in Psalm 96, “all the earth” is not limited to humanity. In verses 11-12 the Lord who made the heavens and the earth instructs the very creation to offer praise. Not only the general heaven and earth, but also the very sea is invited to roar. And this roaring is heard not as threat to God but rather as praise.3
And then, for good measure, the field is invited to exult. The ordered praise of cultivation. But just as the heaven and earth are joined by the chaotic sea, so also the cultivated field is joined by the wild trees of the forest. The praise of the Lord knows no boundaries!
All are part of God’s good work and all are invited to sing praises. This Good News insures that praise is not limited or confined to either the human or the orderly. A new song indeed!
Godliness and good works are probably not the topics that most preachers would choose for a Christmas sermon.
Yet, an exhortation to these is what the Second Lesson from Titus 2:11–14 gives us in part, while the entire letter to Titus does so more fully.
The context of Titus
Paul (or, as scholarly debate suggests, someone writing in the tradition of Paul) writes this letter to Titus, charging him with organizing and teaching a relatively new church on Crete (Titus 1:4–5; 2:1). It details how church leaders and members of Christian households are to behave: as self-controlled, moderate, honest, and especially as full of good works (Titus 2:7, 14; 3:8, 14).
Such basic directives were necessary because of an apparent lack of human decency in the culture (for example Titus 1:12), from which church members came. The situation was complicated by false teachings that affected some Christians (Titus 1:9–16). Some of the letter’s instructions are not uniquely Christian, but rather are based on existing Greco-Roman household codes (for example Titus 2:1–10). The letter thus encourages Christian households to adhere to this accepted structure in order to contribute to the stabilization of society.1
If one were to stop reading Titus at 2:10, it might seem that the establishment of the gospel in Crete merely aimed to instill in believers basic ethics, and to conform the church to an ideal Greco-Roman social order. Is this a domestication of the gospel that should be resisted rather than preached, especially when social structures tend to deviate from the gospel of life and freedom (for example Titus 2:9)? Does the message of Christmas, when we celebrate the arrival of God’s promised Messiah, boil down to “be good,” like children hoping that Santa brings them what they ask for in return?
God’s grace has appeared: Titus 2:11–14
Titus 2:11–14 is one of two key pronouncements (along with Titus 3:3–7) that provide theological grounding for all of the letter’s practical exhortations. The “for” (gar) that begins verse 11 indicates that what follows is explanatory of all that preceded. Simply put, Christians should live in right relationship with each other and society because God’s grace, or gift (charis), has already appeared in the person of Jesus Christ, bringing salvation for all (understanding soterios, “bringing salvation,” in verse 11 as linked with soter, “Savior,” in verse 13; see also Titus 3:4). The latter is the good news commonly preached on Christmas.
But the text doesn’t stop there.
Paul tells us that the manifestation of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is both something that has already occurred (verse 11, epiphaino, past tense), and a future hope (verse 13, epiphaneia), which shapes believers’ lives in the present. Verse 12 indicates that God’s grace is actively educating or disciplining (paideuo) Christians to be who they were created and redeemed to be (see also Titus 2:14). Having renounced ungodliness or impiety (verse 12, asebeia), Christians are to journey toward godliness (verse 12, eusebos; the noun is eusebeia): a reverent devotion to God that involves both an internal conviction and behavior appropriate to such a conviction.2 Christians are to turn from worldly passions — the human tendency toward arrogance, aggression, and self-serving actions — and embrace the self-control and just treatment of others that are true expressions of the gracious and self-sacrificing God whom they profess.
Verse 14 clarifies that this is not a matter of trying to adhere to a general moral code on our own strength; Titus is not an ancient self-help manual. It instead proclaims that Jesus Christ has already given his life in order to set us free from our lawlessness (anomia), in which we opposed God’s purposes, and to purify us in a way that adherence to external commands alone cannot do (see also Titus 1:14). Christians are to be zealous for good deeds as a living, grateful expression of who they already are by divine grace: part of God’s chosen people (Titus 2:14; see also Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 7:6).
To exhort Christians to godliness and good works is to encourage them to daily live out the good news of the Savior’s appearance in the world. The gift of God is intended — at least on one level — to make us good citizens of the world, capable of respectful, meaningful relationships with one another. This may not seem all that radical; we may prefer the drama of angelic choirs and the visible glory of the Lord that the Gospel text in Luke 2 describes.
But a look at the news on any given day reveals that basic human civility often is lacking today, just as it apparently was in ancient Crete. We tend to distance ourselves from, and even demonize, those whose political views and lifestyles are different than our own. Reports of sexual harassment and assault that were systemically tolerated continue to surface. Bullying drives people to despair. The rise of road rage suggests a tendency to see other people merely as obstacles to reaching our own goals.
In this context, the call of Christians to be good members of society is radical, and expresses the transformative nature of the gospel. God’s grace and our professed piety manifest in renouncing our self-centered ways, and in loving our families, neighbors, and even our enemies. Our lives are to reflect to all people that sound Christian teaching has taken root in our lives (Titus 2:10), and that God empowers us to live in a way that we could not on our own.
And that’s good news.
1. Luke Timothy Johnson, Letters to Paul’s Delegates: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus; The New Testament in Context (Valley Forge, PA, 1996), 229–236.
2. I. Howard Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, ICC (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), 142.